SINGAPORE: One of the “biggest” problems Malaysia faces is the politics of race, said the country’s foreign minister Saifuddin Abdullah.
In an exclusive interview with Channel NewsAsia on Monday (Jul 30), Mr Saifuddin touched on the challenges that the new Pakatan Harapan (PH) government has to address, after a historic election victory over Barisan Nasional (BN) that brought it to power.
“You see, my passion and my belief is that one of the biggest problems in Malaysian politics is politics of race and it becomes worse when politics of race is complemented by religion,” Mr Saifuddin said, adding that it becomes a contestation whereby race and religion are pitted against “democratic goods”.
“I think it is about time that we put an end, we put a stop to politics of race and this is not impossible,” he said.
Mr Saifuddin, who joined the People’s Justice Party (PKR) - a PH component party - from UMNO in 2015, was a deputy minister under the previous BN government.
While he was in UMNO, Mr Saifuddin lost his Temerloh seat during the country’s general election in 2013. Two years later he left the BN’s Malay component party, citing the mishandling of state investment fund 1MDB and the unexplained presence of millions of dollars in former prime minister Najib Razak’s personal bank account.
Representing the PKR in Malaysia’s general election in May, he beat the BN’s Johan Mat Sah and PAS candidate Nasrudin Hassan to win the Indera Mahkota seat.
Mr Saifuddin said he believes a new kind of politics in Malaysia is possible under certain conditions. The first being a good number of strong, credible political parties that are “truly multi-racial and multi-religious” in terms of membership. He added that this was already in place.
“At least three of them or two big ones are already in Pakatan Harapan and the other two are also open to people of other race and other religions.”
Secondly, he said there needs to be a system that motivates people to campaign and work across ethnicity and religion. But he acknowledged its absence within the current system.
“Unfortunately, the current system does not provide for that. I give you an example. In the last elections, you have 222 parliamentary constituencies. Out of that 222, only 83 are mixed seats. In our definition, mixed seats means no one ethnic group commands 70 per cent or more of the voters in that particular constituency. We won 73 out of those 83. According to my colleague, Ong Kian Ming (Deputy Minister for International Trade and Industry and Democratic Action Party member), if the EC (Election Commission) was fair in the delimitation exercise, we could probably have about 140 mixed seats.
“So can you imagine, I’m not saying we will win most of it, can you imagine the motivation if we have half of the parliamentary seats are mixed seats, you will have less of this politics of race and religion,” he added.
Mr Saifuddin rejected the notion that this was tantamount to gerrymandering to benefit Pakatan Harapan and instead pointed to the existing system.
“The current one, the current delimitation and drawing is actually because of gerrymandering and malapportionment. So if we can do away with gerrymandering and malapportionment, this is where Kian Ming’s argument come into the picture – you have more mix and that is still real Malaysia. So when you look at the boundaries of the constituency, then you will see that it makes sense, that it looks in a certain way.”
The foreign minister said he thinks that the majority of Malaysians are looking towards a kind of politics that is “more inclusive” and not one that is based on “money, corruption, patronage politics, feudalistic way of doing things.”
PAKATAN HARAPAN MANIFESTO
Mr Saifuddin was also asked about the progress the coalition has made on its 10 promises in its manifesto, as Pakatan Harapan approaches 100 days in power. The promises include abolishing the Goods and Services tax, investigating scandal-plagued institutions, re-introducing fuel subsidies for targeted groups and standardising and increasing the minimum wage.
The foreign minister, while highlighting that at least two of the 10 promises have been addressed, assured that the process has begun for all of them listed in the coalition’s 100-day agenda.
On the question of minimum wage, he said although the Malaysian Cabinet discussed it for the first time, it was an issue that was “not easy”.
“It’s very delicate. So we have asked the minister to actually bring it back to the consultation and come back probably next week or a week after next,”
FROM MAHATHIR TO ANWAR
Mr Saifuddin also addressed the question of Malaysia’s anticipated leadership transition from the incumbent Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to his former deputy Anwar Ibrahim.
Anwar was Dr Mahathir's deputy in the 1990s before being sacked and jailed.
Pakatan Harapan has pledged that Anwar will take over as prime minister after Dr Mahathir steps down.
The time frame for the transition, however, remains open, according to Mr Saifuddin who said that “we have never actually decided” and that the two leaders “will know as to when one will go and when one will come in.”
“We learned that it’s easy to promise but it’s not easy to implement, and in this case, the substance is more important than the timing,” he said.
Mr Saifuddin also said he was “seriously thinking of standing” when asked if he was planning to enter the race for a central post in his People’s Justice Party (PKR) elections in August.
Noting that this would be the first time that he would stand in PKR elections, he added that it is “very healthy” for there to be room for competition.
“I think the rivalry, if there is a rivalry, I don’t see that as something bad for the party,” he added.